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I was wondering if it is better for the user to display a countdown timer in the format of 36 hours, 12 minutes, 30 seconds instead of 1 day, 12 hours, 12 minutes, 30 seconds.

I think that with the first way there is a false view to the user of fewer time. That's why Groupon and other group buying pages are showing it like this.

What is your opinion?

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IMO, you are asking yourself the wrong question. It totally depends on the context. (how big is the countdown value usually? Does the user need an exact information? What does the countdown express?). And if 1 day or 24h seems less could be a matter of user testing, but still, only within a specific context. –  giraff Aug 19 '11 at 16:48
    
Most people don't think in hours but in days. So why would you want to make them calculate when you (the computer) can do it for them? 36 hours requires calculation to be meaningful, whereas 1 day 12 hours conveys meaning immediately. –  Marjan Venema Aug 19 '11 at 16:55
    
The purpose of it is as is used on those group buying sites. They intend to have it in hours instead of days and hours –  Nikolai Aug 19 '11 at 19:18
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1 Answer

up vote 2 down vote accepted

As @giraff mentioned in the comments, this is a question of context and purpose. If your countdown shows the time till the next Olympics, then of course you'll be using days (also months and years if necessary). Your goal is just to display the time in the clearest way, so it's best to use the same units the user usually uses.

But in a social buying context, your goal is different - you're trying to convey a sense of urgency and have the user feel like time is running out, and he should make the purchase ASAP. In this context you don't want him thinking in terms of days, so you use hours.

Another related point - showing days-hours-minutes-seconds feels weird. When you display days, you usually don't need the seconds resolution, and vice versa. And here you definitely need seconds, because you want the user to see the time elapsing before his eyes, it drives him to action. You can't get this effect with just minutes.

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I would expect urgency to be conveyed better by smaller numbers? E.g. 2 days instead of 48 hours? Are you saying that in these cases the "days" weigh more heavily than the "hours"? If there is any, I would be interested in reading any research into how words and numbers affect each other in this respect. –  Marjan Venema Aug 20 '11 at 9:33
    
Thank you for your answer. @Marjan Venema I would like to see a research too if you find one, but in my eyes I see 48 hours closer to 0 than 2 days. –  Nikolai Aug 20 '11 at 12:31
    
Yes, I think that the unit of measure has a stronger impact than the number. To some extent this comes from my background in linguistics, but I don't have any research to back it - either in HCI or in linguistics :). I'm sure some had been done though, in linguistics. Too bad there isn't a linguistics SE (I tried English.SE, but understandably it got closed). –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Aug 20 '11 at 12:57
    
Consider "there's hours to go..." versus "there's days to go...". The former sounds sooner, even if it's 97 hours versus 2 days. –  DJClayworth Aug 22 '11 at 21:16
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